Rise Johansen is among many British Columbians who have decided against obeying an evacuation order because of a wildfire, choosing instead to remain behind in Takysie to help others who are staying in their homes.
On Friday, she said the sun was out and the smoke had lifted slightly.
“It’s a very odd experience because sometimes you wouldn’t even hardly know there’s a fire,” said Johansen, the co-owner of Takysie Lake Resort.
She and her husband are two of the last people left in a tiny community of about 20 homes on Takysie Lake in central B.C. As fires snaked through the area this summer, many homes were evacuated — even the Johansens left before returning.
“We just went down the road a little bit and then we’ve come back,” Johansen said in a telephone interview on Friday. “We didn’t feel like we were in imminent danger the night they started to evacuate.”
She said the couple will stay as long as they feel safe. They run a store, resort, gas station and restaurant, and have had a steady stream of people coming to them for everything from a cup of coffee to gas for their vehicles.
The BC Wildfire Service said more than 550 fires were burning Friday in all areas of the province. Sixty were considered fires of note, meaning they either posed a threat to people and property or were highly visible. Most were in the province’s southeast.
Winds complicated the battle against many fires, including two with a combined area of more than 1,000 square kilometres southwest of Burns Lake and along the south shore of Francois Lake, where some people have defied an evacuation order to protect their land.
Rodney Holland, chief administrative officer at nearby Fraser Lake, said evacuation orders are based on personal safety, although adults have the option of defying the orders. He said he understands why people would, based on an underlying belief that nobody will protect their property as diligently as they would.
Johansen was also critical of the response to the fires by government agencies.
“The boots on the ground are all awesome. The guys and the gals are working their asses off,” she said. “But the system of how this is being taken care of is immensely flawed. And that’s why so many people have stayed here — and I hate to use the word defied, but defied the evacuation order — because we don’t have enough faith in the people making the decisions.”
Holland said it is “frustrating” that some people are not happy with the government’s handling of the fires.
“From everything that we’ve seen, everybody’s who’s responding to this fire is doing the very best possible,” he said. “We can’t control Mother Nature — Mother Nature is much bigger than us and the first responders and it’s sad that these people … are sitting back and criticizing. It’s just sad.”
Some members of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation have also defied evacuation orders and have stayed behind to protect their homes.
Dana Glanville, who wrote a letter to the government following a public meeting in Grassy Plains, said she’s frustrated that authorities aren’t using valuable local knowledge to fight the fires and dismissed suggestions that local residents are naive or unprepared.
“These are seasoned people who are farm people and loggers and contractors and many of them have had extensive experience fighting fires of all sizes and types for many, many years,” she said Thursday. “They’re not wet behind the ears by any stroke of the imagination.”
Glanville said between 100 and 150 residents on the south side of Francois Lake stayed behind to protect the land.
“It’s home. It’s a beautiful little corner of the province,’ said Glanville, a former forestry technician. “It’s wild, it’s free. It’s filled with probably some of the last very, very self-reliant, hard-working, honest people.”
Ginger Moyah, a resident of the south side of the lake, on Saturday attempted to organize a last-minute blockade of millions of dollars of firefighting equipment when contractor Safeguard was redirected to another fire complex.
Moyah said she’s frustrated her community has lost three houses over the past several days, which she believes could have been saved.
Kelsey Winter of the BC Wildfire Service said the decision to divert the contractors to a different fire complex was made based on discussions with Safeguard, which said its fire suppression tool was ill-suited for the area around Francois Lake.
Winter said the tool in question requires deep water reserves in flat areas, and was designed to save buildings that are more densely packed together.
“Unfortunately in the areas of this fire where the tool would be effective, the water sources were insufficient, or the terrain was too challenging, and there was a significant distance between structures,” she said.
“Even though this is the Lake district, the water sources weren’t the correct fit for that particular system.”
— With files from Amy Smart and Spencer Harwood in Vancouver
Hina Alam, The Canadian Press